PUBLIC SAFETY

Man charged with Highland school attack released after state hospital snafu  

A Marion County Circuit Court judge has released from jail a Salem man charged with attacking two elementary school employees under orders from the Oregon Supreme Court to get him treatment for his mental illness outside the government’s custody.

Charly J. Velasquez-Sanchez, 27, is being released to Marion County’s Behavioral Health Crisis Center where he’ll get treated for schizophrenia, a short-term bed, medication management and classes on legal skills to help him assist his lawyer in his defense.

Velasquez-Sanchez is accused of walking onto the Highland Elementary School campus in June 2023 and assaulting two employees near the school playground, leaving one of the women battered and the other unconscious.  

The incident, which happened during recess on the last day of the school year, was witnessed by students and prompted a lockdown on campus.

Judge Audrey Broyles said during a hearing on Thursday that she had no choice but to let Velasquez-Sanchez get treatment in the community despite a public safety risk. 

“Make no mistake, this is not my decision,” Broyles said.

Velasquez-Sanchez’s case is an example of the challenges created by a federal judge’s order in 2022, which set deadlines for how long people can stay at the overcrowded Oregon State Hospital in Salem while getting mental health treatment to help them assist in their own defense against criminal charges.

Oregon law allows such patients to stay at the state hospital for up to three years for a felony. But under U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman’s order, criminal defendants like Velasquez-Sanchez have to be released from the state hospital after six months.

Broyles said the federal deadlines were set “arbitrarily.”

“Under the Mosman order, state court judges are forced on a daily basis to decide whether to dismiss charges, endanger public safety or violate a defendant’s rights which runs counter to justice and the law of Oregon,” she wrote in an order on Thursday.

Random attack

Broyles’ written order and a Salem Police Department affidavit provided an account of the attack on June 14, 2023.

Police responded shortly before 10 a.m. that morning to a report that a man was “hitting, kicking and knocking people to the ground,” at Highland Elementary School, according to the affidavit.

A school library worker later told police she was on the playground supervising students when she saw Velasquez-Sanchez walk onto the campus and confronted him, telling him he had to leave the campus.

She said Velasquez-Sanchez then attacked her, punching her in the head at least four times. Police reported the woman had bruising on her head and her eye sockets were starting to swell after the attack.

When another school employee came to help, Velazquez-Sanchez chased after her, pushed her to the ground and started kicking and punching her in the body and back. The second victim had abrasions and bleeding on her elbow and knee.

“She lost consciousness for a period of time,” according to Broyles’ order.

Three other school employees were called to the playground via radio to respond to an emergency. When the first employee who was called approached, Vasquez-Sanchez “took a stance like he was going to fight him,” the affidavit said.

Two other employees then arrived, and Vasquez-Sanchez fled. The school workers eventually caught up with and tackled him on Northeast 5th Street, pinning him to the ground until police arrived.

Velasquez-Sanchez told police that he went to the school campus “because a woman was staring at him and ‘mad dogging’ him. He said he also wanted to ‘get close to the children because they are the truth,’” according to the affidavit.

An officer reported that he tried to interview Velasquez-Sanchez, “but he was talking nonsense and would not even initially give a name.”

Velasquez-Sanchez was booked into the Marion County Jail and later sent to the state hospital. 

He has previous convictions in four criminal cases since 2020, including failure to perform duties of a driver, fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer, menacing and assaulting a public safety officer. Court records showed he was found unfit to stand trial because of his mental illness in each case.

He is currently a defendant in four criminal cases in which he has been accused of violent behavior.

Prior to the Highland attack, Velasquez-Sanchez was charged in July 2022 with second-degree disorderly conduct. He was accused of swearing and pointing at adults and children at River Road Park while holding and throwing an ax. 

Court rollercoaster

After his arrest at Highland, Velasquez-Sanchez spent six months at the state hospital but was never found to be able to take part in his defense. He was sent back to jail in February.

Then, Broyles tried something new. She ordered the Marion County Sheriff’s Office to take Velasquez-Sanchez once a week to the state hospital for treatment during the day and then bring him back to jail. 

The hospital immediately asked Mosman, the federal judge, to step in. He overruled Broyles’ decision, finding that it violated his deadlines for the state facility. 

Velasquez-Sanchez’s attorney then sought to have the case dismissed, which Broyles denied. His attorney took the issue to the state Supreme Court, which ordered Broyles to walk back her denial.

That left Broyles with two options: release Velasquez-Sanchez from jail or drop the case.

She said during the hearing that the same predicament has resulted in other criminal defendants in Marion County being released and later arrested again or dying by overdose.

A psychologist who treated Velasquez-Sanchez at the state hospital said he no longer reports hallucinations or delusions but still has trouble understanding court proceedings. The doctor recommended that Broyles find Velasquez-Sanchez is still unfit to stand trial. 

The judge ordered him to receive treatment at the county crisis center, have no contact with the victims, stay away from any place where children congregate and be tracked by a GPS. Additional court proceedings are scheduled for June 20.

At the Thursday hearing, Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson agreed with Broyles’ decision, calling it “the least worst option.”

“This is the exact situation we’ve been put in by the federal court,” Clarkson said. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly reported that Velasquez-Sanchez can come and go from the Behavioral Health Crisis Center. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

RELATED COVERAGE:

Salem man arrested in “random attack” on school staff near Highland playground

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.